Being able to cover the required miles, regardless of terrain, day-in and day-out can be the difference between success and failure on a lot of hunts. Getting the footwear link in the gear chain right is the driver of that mobility and the level of comfort we can enjoy through each of those miles.
The lens through which we look at our footwear choices boils into 4 primary categories:
- Heavy Trekking/Backpacking Boots
- 3 Season Mountaineering Boots
- 4 Season Mountaineering Boots
Each category has a specific set of circumstances where they perform at their peak, the further we get from that set of circumstances the less effective their core strengths become.
Shoes, to us, cover trail runners, approach shoes, hiking shoes, and even some light hiking boots. Their primary features fall into light weight, flexibility and stealth. They lend themselves well to fast, light, warm weather applications. Think Early season elk hunts in easy country and archery deer hunts, where you will be hunting from a basecamp or packing light and the daily mile count or elevation change can be large but the weight carried is low. They offer limited underfoot protection beyond cushion, so the rockiness or amount of deadfall you fight is preferably low. The help with proprioception, essentially you can tell what’s going on beneath them because of them, and that makes them easier to finish a stalk in.
Heavy Trekking & Backpacking Boots are very similar to one another and the primary differentiator is often how the manufacturer relates them to the rest of their assortment, these boots offer an increase in substance all the way around the foot – with internal padding, a substantial but somewhat soft midsole, a pliable shank, and a robust upper offer more protection from the surrounding environment while still providing a comfortable walking platform. They work well with a heavy pack, offer reliable water proofing, and multi-year wear in exchange for the increased substance and slight increase in on-the-foot weight. Climbing ability begins to show up in these options, and increased torsional resistance begins to pay off on long side-hill routes. The substance offered by this category of boot begins to work for you in bigger country or with a heavier pack.
Three season Mountaineering boots increase in underfoot rigidity, both laterally and longitudinally resulting in a substantial improvement in climbing, side hill, and descending ability. Rather than using all the lower leg and foot musculature to control footing, balance, and climbing, the boot’s shank provides mechanical advantage through which you can drive yourself uphill with the larger quad/hamstring/glute muscle groups. Side-hill and uphill performance is improved from the shank as well and solid footing takes significantly less ground contact and requires less intentionality on your part as well. You can also enjoy better control on major descents in steep country or with a heavy pack by employing heal pressure for breaking. To improve walking performance for the approach, most modern 3-season mountaineering boots employ substantial forefoot rocker; rather than the foot flexing to any major degree, the boot rolls along with your gait to provide comfortable walking in less technical terrain or on a trail serviced approach. In this category, you will find an assortment of boot features, but the primary focus within this category is climbing performance.
Four season mountaineering boots are geared towards extremely cold, vertical with primary ground covering being snow and ice. They typically offer another bump up in rigidity to improve performance in mega-steep country and a more reliable interface between the boot and crampons. They are warm, with a removable liner, neoprene and/or Primaloft insulation, and in many cases, they have a built-in gaiter to deal with deep snow or lots of scree. These boots are highly specialized and serve well almost exclusively in the mid to high elevation mountaineering environment and lend themselves well to a very small handful of hunts.
We put most customers into the two middle categories because they work exceptionally well over a very wide array of conditions throughout the West, and are the situationally appropriate choice for the vast majority of hunts. These boots perform well on almost every hunt you can imagine; those hunts they don’t perform exceptionally well on typically dictate a truly specialized option.
Before getting into the categorical selection though, fit takes the foremost position in the boot selection process as you get better performance out of a great fitting boot than you would a high performing but, ill-fitting boot. Some folks need something very specific to fit their feet and their personal needs; the right last and midsole address those needs and they may not be available in unison within a specific category of footwear.
The nuts and bolts of great boot fit are simple:
Foot structure is seldom adequately acknowledged, how the arch responds to being loaded and how the wearer walks have an influence over how well the boot works for that individual. If the foot grows by a more than a half-size when you go from seated to standing the arch is collapsing under the foot – this can be addressed through the addition of an insole to ensure a more consistent foot size. A foot that fluctuates like this often floats around in a boot and can be hard to keep positioned well in the boot. The addition of an insole helps to provide uniform foot shape and substance throughout the day, while also providing a three-dimensional fit which reduces foot slip and heal lift. Size is peculiar because the manufacturer gets to pick which size to print on the box and more goes into size than length alone. A 10 in one boot is never the same as a 10 in another. Part of this is addressed in the shape inspection the other part is through the actual measurement process. When we work with a someone in person we use a Brannock Device to take the measurements of the length, arch length, and width of the foot, then pair those measurements with our experience to output a size; when we are working with a customer over the phone or email we exchange a list of pictures and tape measurements to get the same outcome. The size on the Brannock isn’t necessarily the size boot we go to but it’s the best reference and gets us on the right plane quickly.
From there, we start digging into the actual category of boot we want. Everyone who makes boots has slightly different interpretations of their application, the primary goal is to get a boot with sufficient substance, much more so than one that has a specific title. Once you get it nailed down, you can very often find a more or less substantial boot cut on that last or a very, very similar last to specialize according to your specific needs.
With a boot in hand we can now begin to address how it fits on the foot.
Quick guidelines for fit are to try them on after you’ve been on your feet, days on the mountain will help to swell your feet up and we want to ensure we have sufficient room to accommodate them once that happens. The first thing we do is put on the sock we selected in the first dose of our footwear coverage, and get into the boot. Making sure they are completely loose; we want to slide our foot to the end of the boot and use our index finger to measure how much extra room there is in the boot. If you have the hands of a carpenter, you probably want the space to be a finger-tip thickness between the heal and the boot, if you have little proctologist hands you want a little wiggle room. The perk to this anatomical reference is that you get a consistent read on how much room there is in a boot, so you can easily compare as you change models, lasts, or manufacturers. Now, re-seat the heal and lace the boot up diligently, ensuring good hand-shake type support as you lace them up. Once the lace lock is engaged, we want to be able to comfortably wiggle the toes. Then lace the shaft of the boot up, again to good handshake type tension.
Toe kicking something substantial helps to identify any slippage or size issues. Toe contact will show up every time in boots that are too small, and sometimes when they are too large. If you have sufficient length, try adding an insole to improve the fit around the entire foot then repeat. In many cases, this will solve the problem.
Another trick is to go into a lunge and force flex the back foot, basically forcing the boot through its full range of motion. If the heal slides from the heal pocket the boot is either too large, too voluminous, or not tied tight enough.
When dealing with substantial boots, a little heal slip is common when the boot is new – just because the boot is so stiff and the foot is wanting to go through its natural range of motion, the goal of all of this is to limit that as much as possible, to avoid hotspots and foot abrasions when you actually get on the mountain to hunt. Take time to break the boots in, wear them to work if you can get away with it, or short walks, or to the gym on your leg days. If they start to bug you, loosen them up and give your feet a break, then go back at it. By spending a few weeks in the boots early on, they begin to conform to the foot and you become more familiar with where your feet are in relation to the ground. If you start by doing that, once you hit the hills to finalize break-in you have more precise footing and the process is far easier on the feet as well.